A New Zealand Government official is in Nigeria as efforts ramp up to secure the release of a Kiwi mining contractor who was kidnapped by militants in a fatal ambush two days ago.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has revealed a ministry official has travelled to the country's capital to work alongside local authorities negotiating the release of Jamal Khan, one of seven men taken hostage at gunpoint early Wednesday morning.
The identities of the mining workers kidnapped by gunmen in southern Nigeria have been revealed by Australian and Nigerian media, after their convoy of four vehicles was ambushed in an early morning attack.
MFAT has yet to confirm the identity of the kidnapped New Zealander but Australian and Nigerian media have named him as Jamal Khan. He is missing along with Australians Peter Zoutenbier, Jack Couranz and Mark Gabbedy, South African Wayne Smith and Nigerian Austin Adise.
Perth mechanic Tim Croot, 24, who had army reserve training, managed to escape with a Nigerian driver in early morning light and The West Australian reported that consular officials are now assisting Mr Croot.
The Australian reported that he phoned his parents on Wednesday night to reassure them he was OK. He told his mother, Leanne: "Don't stress, mum."
The men work for West Australian mining company Macmahon Holdings which is contracted to cement company Lafarge Africa. Mr Couranz is believed to be a reliability engineer, Mr Gabbedy is a project manager at Macmahon, Mr Croot is a heavy diesel mechanic and Peter Zoutenbier is a senior maintenance planner.
The New Zealand Government said it remained in close contact with the kidnapped New Zealander's family as well as Australian authorities and the mining company.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to seek information on the kidnapping in Nigeria of a New Zealand citizen working for an Australian mining company.
"A Ministry official has travelled to Abuja to liaise with local authorities and provide consular advice."
The Government said it would not be providing any further comment as it was not in the interests of the Kiwi hostage or his family.
The contractors' convoy was ambushed on a roadside in the country's southeast, outside the city of Calabar in the Akpabuyo district on Wednesday.
The workers were being escorted by a security truck with four armed policemen when they were attacked by the gunmen, with the police reportedly unable to do anything while the attack lasted.
According to local media a group of militants ambushed the contractors before opening fire and killing the driver on the spot. The kidnappers fled with the hostages in a waiting boat hidden under the nearby Idundu Bridge.
A witness told Vanguard: "One of the expatriates hid under the vehicle and they didn't see him because it was still a bit dark. They also took one of the drivers ... then one supervisor and three white guys and it was like they had a boat by the beach already waiting for them."
Nigerian police commissioner Ozi-Obeh told AP that "a very intense search is on, with more patrol and surveillance teams dispatched to the rescue".
Nigerian Government spokesman Christian Ita said security services knew where the hostages were being held and that the Government was hopeful they would be released soon.
Nigerian newspapers quoted witnesses saying the hostages were forced onto a boat, meaning they could be anywhere in a maze of estuaries and mangrove swamps that dominate the state's geography.
Kidnapping for ransom is common in Nigeria but generally involves no fatalities. Hostages are returned unharmed once money exchanges hands, though a German construction worker was killed in southwestern Nigeria late last year by gunmen who kidnapped a second German. He was later released.
Prime Minister John Key said yesterday there was no chance the Government would pay a ransom for the Kiwi, saying it was likely the kidnappers wanted money, rather than being part of a terrorist organisation. The Government's policy was not to pay ransoms, he said, as doing so would put a bounty on the head of any New Zealander who travelled to a dangerous part of the world.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said: "The Australian Government is working to confirm details of the reported kidnapping in Nigeria of four Australians, who have been working for an Australian mining company. The Australian Government is in close contact with the Nigerian Government, which is taking the matter extremely seriously."
The family of Mr Zoutenbier said they were shocked by what had happened. Mr Zoutenbier's sister-in-law, Tracy, said it was a "real concern" the group of kidnappers had already killed someone.
"We just want to do everything we can to get these guys home safe to all their families," she said.
Former Auckland road policing boss Sandy Beckett, who worked in Nigeria and escaped a kidnapping, believed the workers would be released if the ransom was paid.
Mr Beckett worked around Enugu, about three hours' north of Calabar. He was driving with other multinationals when armed gang members jumped out of the jungle, but he managed to drive them to safety.
"I was too close to stop and turn around so I changed gear and accelerated to the nearest gang member who was one of three carrying AK-47s. I had no intention of stopping and they jumped out of the way and melted back into the jungle. It was pretty scary stuff."
He said if the kidnappers were to kill the trio, then "they can't do it again because the companies and insurance companies wouldn't pay any ransom".
"So once the money is paid there's a high likelihood they will be released somewhere."
Bruce Klenner, 56, a New Plymouth rig worker, was among a group of six - including fellow Kiwi Brent Goddard - who were woken by gunfire and the doors on the barge-mounted rig being blown up by Nigerian raiders during the early hours of July 4, 2007.
"Hopefully it's good, if they've got good negotiators helping things along but at the end of the day it all boils down to money. Once they cough up with the goods, with the money, they're all good."
Mr Klenner said he and the other hostages were kept in a hut in the middle of the jungle, fed twice a day and were not harmed.
Lafarge Africa said it had been informed of the incident by Australian contractor Macmahon Holdings.
"Macmahon is working with the security agencies to resolve this situation," said Viola Graham-Douglas, a spokeswoman for Lafarge Africa.
A statement from Macmahon Holdings said: "We are working to ensure the safe return of all the men involved and are in communication with their families."
- With Daily Mail